Should Christians Participate in the Martial Arts?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2012
The question of Christian participation in the martial arts is easy to resolve at one level and less easy at another. Christian groups which teach the martial arts, or employ them as evangelistic methods, stress that they can satisfactorily remove the Eastern philosophy and the occult practices and still produce favorable results.

Should Christians Participate in the Martial Arts?

According to Scot Conway, founder of the Christian Martial Arts Foundation, over 50 percent of practitioners and some 20 percent of instructors consider themselves Christians.[1]

The question of Christian participation in the martial arts is easy to resolve at one level and less easy at another. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Christians are to avoid any system that encourages or requires occult practices of meditation, breath control, visualization, manipulation of mystical energies such as ki or chi, or the adoption of Eastern philosophy. This would therefore rule out participation in many forms of the martial arts.

On the other hand, meditation, the manipulation of psychic energies, and occult breathing techniques are not necessary to the physical conditioning required for effective mastery of the body. The mind and body can be disciplined to produce many (although not all) of the more extraordinary abilities seen in the martial arts without recourse to any kind of occult or supernatural power. However, any time something supernatural occurs in the martial arts, such as breaking a pile of bricks by light touch or throwing an opponent at a distance, we have left the realm of natural human ability.

Christian groups which teach the martial arts, or employ them as evangelistic methods, stress that they can satisfactorily remove the Eastern philosophy and the occult practices and still produce favorable results. For example, Robert Bussey is regarded “as one of the most dynamic fighting technicians of our day,” according to Ninja Masters.[2] He has the largest and best-equipped Ninjutsu hall in the world. Yet Mr. Bussey appears to be a committed Christian: “I enjoy working hard to be the best that God wants me to be—and I have hundreds of dedicated students that feel the same way…. As a Christian, it is important that I see people in the same way Jesus did.”[3] Another example is Raul Ries and Xavier Ries, pastors of Calvary Chapel in Diamond Bar and Pasadena, California, respectively, who both hold eighth-degree black belts in Kung Fu, a discipline they have been teaching for over 20 years. They believe that the mystical or occult potential of the martial arts can be avoided.[4]

We are not saying that it is always easy to practice the martial arts as a Christian. Theoretically and practically there are pitfalls to be avoided, and for a variety of reasons not everyone could be expected to avoid them. For example, novices must be careful to evaluate the true nature of a martial arts practice. Is it practiced traditionally or as a hybridization? If toned down in religious content, will some practitioners, upon learning this, desire the real thing? A book on Tai Chi states: “The great majority [in China]… have always engaged in it, and do so still, quite without mystic or religious purpose.”[5] But traditionalists claim that this is not true Tai Chi. “[O]ne school of traditionalist thought strongly resents the spread of what it regards as a very superficial version of t’ai chi, as taught in most classes. Teachers in this mold refuse to take pupils except on a long-term basis, and require them not just to learn the dance, but also to study Taoism, the I Ching, and their general philosophies.”[6]

Sometimes, even in the allegedly nonmystical, nonreligious Tai Chi, the manipulation of chi can still remain. In other words, chi itself is defined non-mystically and its manipulation is not perceived as a religious or mystical practice, but as a “natural” communion with the essence of the universe. How then can Tai Chi or Tai Chi Chuan be “nonreligious” if chi, deeply rooted as it is in Eastern religion and philosophy, remains a central element in its practice?

It does not, however, require… a long apprenticeship to appreciate the difference between t’ai chi and most western forms of exercise, and to reach at least the beginning of an understanding of the significance, in this context, of chi, the life force, which in Chinese metaphysics is held to permeate the atmosphere. The aim is to tune in to chi. In Chinese metaphysics, the assumption is that mind and body in combination can be opened up to it, so that the energy itself takes over, as it were. Instead of having to go through the motions, the dancers find the motions going through them.[7]

This kind of “energy possession” is also encountered in yoga, where difficult postures are effortlessly achieved by the indwelling spirit, and in occult meditation. Nevertheless, because of its supposedly “nonreligious” forms, some Christian organizations have endorsed the practice of Tai Chi Chuan,[8] despite the fact that the manipulation of chi is intrinsic to its purpose:

The ancient and elegant system of Chinese exercise known as T’ai Chi Ch’uan is designed primarily to maintain and enhance health by giving full expression to the life-force, or ch’i, of the universe, embodied in each of us…. Tai Chi is more than a mere physical exercise. As a system devoted to wholeness and unity, it is truly an integrative experience—it is a silent meditation, an energizing exercise, a joyful dance, a precise system of self-defense, a daily ritual and prayer, and a living expression of a way of being in the world.

It embodies the vibrant philosophy of Taoism through its emphasis on the gentle strength of centering and yielding. The binding force of all these elements is the ch’i, which is harnessed and utilized by T’ai Chi Ch’uan in order to perform its intrinsic healing function.[9]

The occult potential of Tai Chi is evident not only from Taoism[10] but because chi is equivalent to kundalini energy, and because Tai Chi, like yoga, arouses such energy:

The T’ai Chi Ch’uan exercise is the choreographed movement, the discipline, the ritual, which gives shape to the living breath of the ch’i and allows the healing to take place…. It rouses the ch’i “as a dragon rising from hibernation” and then channels, as a river bank, the latent force of that energy into specific articulations of the body…. [Chi] adheres to the base of the spine…. [I]t rises to the top of the head… [I]t travels through the meridians and energy channels, and it is mobilized by the will and imagination. In order to cultivate the ch’i we must be sensitive to its presence…. It can manifest as heat, as surges of energy, as tingling, as a certain heaviness to the limbs….[11]

Tai Chi is not nonreligious just because its religious elements are said to be absent. Indeed, when conducted in a religious atmosphere (however defined), the exercises alone are allegedly able to assist in the arousal of kundalini. As we have seen elsewhere, this phenomenon is related to spiritistic intervention or possession.

Can anyone guarantee that the claimed “non-religious” practice of Tai Chi will never have spiritual implications? Claims to having removed mysticism from martial arts practice must be critically evaluated. Again, much depends on the instructor. What is religious, mystical, or occult can be called mere psychological dynamics, and thus wrongly interpreted as something entirely “natural.”

Again, none of this is stated to deny the reality of nonreligious programs of martial arts practice. For example, through personal concentration, strong discipline, and intensive conditioning, the normal human body can, after years of effort, be trained to perform many of the dramatic physical feats in the martial arts. The removal of the meditation, mysticism, chi, and Eastern philosophy may restrict the potential range of abilities, because occult power may not then be present, but it will not prevent considerable human physical strengths from being developed.

At this point we should note there are divergent opinions on the subject of Christian participation in the martial arts. In order to acknowledge both sides, we asked representatives to defend their particular views.

Bruce L. Johnson, a former practitioner of the martial arts, has lived in China, Japan, India, and in other countries in the Far East. He has studied many Oriental religions and philosophies and was greatly enamored with the various martial art styles of these countries. As a result he became involved in Taoism and trained at the Kodokan Institute of Judo in Tokyo, Japan. Eventually, he studied “Chinese Wand Exercise” in Shanghai, under the great Chinese Grand Master, Dr. Ch’eng, who later bestowed the title of Grand Master on him After Dr. Ch’eng’s death, Johnson became the only living Grand Master teaching these exercises. He eventually taught them to several famous movie stars, including clients of Bruce Lee who had previously been instructed in the martial arts. Johnson also lived for a while in the South Pacific and Caribbean, where he witnessed authentic voodoo and macumba ceremonies.

He now argues against Christian participation in the martial arts. He is not convinced that “you can fully learn the physical aspect without at least dabbling in the metaphysical,” and, practically speaking, he questions how effectively the two can be separated. He also feels that the tendency to violence in many of these practices raises issues for active Christian practice. Here we cite part of his views at some length from a statement prepared for the authors:

I remember being taught, actually commanded, to never use the techniques I had learned, unless, as one wise sensei told me, “Use them only if your very life is hanging by the golden thread… and then, if at all possible, make your moves defensively.” Learning how to defend oneself is what the martial arts used to be about. But in today’s world the emphasis is on offensive maneuvers. Full contact in both sparring and contests is encouraged. Gone are the beautiful defensive moves, such as in aikido, so aptly demonstrated by the old masters.

Most forms of the martial arts can be traced back to some form of Buddhism, especially Zen, which originated in ancient India, and eventually spread to the Orient. Since meditation is such an integral part of the martial arts, it cannot be dismissed or ignored. Ancient practitioners knew their power was of a spiritual nature and not merely physical. It is this balance and harmonization of the opposite poles of yin and yang, that allegedly produces the mysterious ch’i, permitting a “flow” from one move to another. Can practice and theory be so easily separated when the “flow” of movement is dependent on chi? Further, becoming “enlightened” or entering “altered states” of consciousness are not normal Christian practices.

Buddhism teaches transmigration (reincarnation) and Zen meditation is the spiritual heart of the majority of all forms of martial arts. You cannot separate out the raw Taoism of the martial arts just as you cannot separate yoga from Hinduism.

The ultimate goal in the martial arts was to perfect one’s capability toward superhuman, supernatural feats. The martial arts are steeped in mysticism and frequently boast of these supernatural, occult abilities.

The Orientals also practiced the martial arts for other reasons besides defense. The deep spiritual disciplines allowed the practitioner to “shake hands with nature,” so to speak, and tap into the energy of the universe, to get in touch with their mysterious inner “life force.”

Our nation is now being bombarded from the Far East with Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, yoga, reincarnation, and now the martial arts, which are also promoting the metaphysical and supernatural. Christians who endorse martial arts are indirectly helping promote the cultural emergence of Eastern ways.

In the last several years, I’ve watched the dramatic changes in the martial arts in the United States, again, noting an emphasis being put on the offensive aspect. This has led to full contact sparring, kick boxing, the teaching of weaponry, etc. I see no reason at all for Christians to teach youngsters how to use the variety of “crafted” weapons that are so dangerous and potentially deadly. Pick up any martial arts magazine and one can see for themselves how “self-defense” has been tossed by the wayside, and deadly kicks, punches, and the mastery of all types of lethal weapons are now the vogue. Isn’t there enough violence in America, without Christians participating and instructing in offensive martial arts? For example, would Jesus approve of Christians teaching deadly fighting/ combat techniques including weaponry? Regardless of how many say they want love and peace, the human heart still appears to be fascinated with violence.

Jesus was basically a gentle man. He never physically harmed anyone, even though He was brutally beaten, tortured, and crucified on a cross. He forgave even His enemies. By not teaching students to “turn the other cheek” and walk away from unpleasant situations, the offensively oriented martial arts of today promote violence by default. Students aren’t taking martial arts lessons to learn self-control or peace.

Rather than learning to defend themselves, many are itching to practice offensive moves on someone. Notice the many youngsters on the corners, waiting for their school buses, practicing their karate kicks and punches on other classmates. Even the “touch of death” is being taught, including to children. In fact, some top Masters have argued among themselves which one had put the “touch of death” on Bruce Lee. Even when I was practicing the martial arts, this seemed incredible.

I have refused countless numbers of parents, who’ve asked me to teach their boys the martial arts, since “they know little Johnny would never, ever use this on anybody, as he only wants to know how to defend himself.” I don’t know these youngsters and what they would do with this knowledge. I would be indirectly responsible for their actions, if they were to do bodily injury to another. It would be analogous to teaching a child about guns, then handing him a loaded pistol and telling him never to use it.

There are teams that travel around, such as “Judo for Jesus” and “Karate for Christ” who draw crowds curious to see their demonstrations. Christians who break boards, bricks, blocks of ice, etc., tend to also feed the practitioner’s ego. Further, the “Judo for Jesus” and “Karate for Christ” groups that witness for Jesus Christ, are also witnesses for the martial arts.

Even though the martial arts look physical on the outside, as I have said, Oriental philosophy is at their heart. It is raw metaphysical discipline. These things are not from God, as God is not in the business of mystical energies or the occult. Christians who participate or instruct in the martial arts usually justify their practices by claiming they do so only for self-defense, exercise value, or for the sport of it. They never intend to hurt anyone. But since martial arts masters are known for their supernatural feats and in their practices there is a direct parallel to the occult/psychic powers of spirit mediums I question whether Christians have any place in this realm The master “is known to perform acts of magic. The master performs… miracles.”[12] Further, God calls a man to humility and dependence on Him whereas the martial arts emphasize human self-sufficiency and this may also foster pride.

One might get the impression that I am a pacifist, and would never defend myself or my family. That would not be the case. What was said before, “Use only if your very life is hanging by the golden thread,” remains true. But when I was saved years ago, the Lord made me a new creature; the old things were passed away, and all things became new. I no longer practice the martial arts because I am certainly accountable for the witness I extend to others and as a Christian, I cannot in good conscience, teach or recommend the martial arts to others.[13]

To present the other side, we had several Christian experts in the martial arts evaluate this chapter. All agreed that the martial arts could be Eastern or occult. But they also stressed that martial arts practice can be neutral forms of discipline that anyone may engage in safely and effectively. Mark Pinner, a gold medalist and an instructor in karate, also gave us the following comments:

The main problem with karate and the spiritual association with it stems from the practitioners themselves, not karate…. I am often frustrated with members of the church who would immediately assume that all karate or martial arts are occult or of Satan, simply because some practitioners are!

I am an instructor of karate and that is how I support myself. I teach from the first day under my own spiritual beliefs as did the first practitioners. I have both saved and unsaved students and I make no secret of my love for Jesus. I wish that all Christians had the freedom and opportunities to reach such a variety with the witness of Christ that I do through this sport. Unfortunately, we have many opportunities to expose ourselves to occult potential, and I am sure that there are those who have adopted the religious practices of their martial arts mentors, but isn’t that exactly what I myself am attempting for the Body of Christ?

I feel that Christians can practice karate according to the same caution and biblical applications with which they live their lives in general I think this approach is far more discerning than to reject all martial arts and forget that many godly men and women are teaching karate. Nor should we forget that many pupils will benefit from the skills the practice of karate will develop. This includes control of one’s body which can prevent the problems of premarital sex, smoking and drugs; the achievement of discipline which is related to job, school and home duties; and developing a humble temperament and submission to authority. Certainly, these are Christian virtues and perhaps we should not forget that although Christ was the most humble man who ever lived, He was also the most powerful. In essence, if the martial arts are practiced wisely, they can be of great benefit.

In offering a biblical case for self-defense in general, one article on the martial arts said:

Though the Bible is silent regarding the Asian martial arts, it nonetheless records many accounts of fighting and warfare…. God is portrayed as the omnipotent Warrior-leader of the Israelites. God, the LORD of hosts, raised up warriors among the Israelites called the shophetim (savior-deliverers). Samson, Deborah, Gideon, and others were anointed by the Spirit of God to conduct war. The New Testament commends Old Testament warriors for their military acts of faith (Heb. 11:30-40). Moreover, it is significant that although given the opportunity to do so, none of the New Testament saints—nor even Jesus—are ever seen informing a military convert that he needed to resign from his line of work (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 3:14).

Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus revealed to His disciples the future hostility they would face and encouraged them to sell their outer garments in order to purchase a sword (Luke 22:36-38; cf. 2 Cor. 11:26-27). Here the “sword” (maxairan) is a “dagger or short sword [that] belonged to the Jewish traveler’s equipment as protection against robbers and wild animals” It is perfectly clear from this passage that Jesus approved of self-defense.

Self-defense may actually result in one of the greatest examples of human love. Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When protecting one’s family or neighbor, a Christian is unselfishly risking his or her life for the sake of others…. Scripture allows Christians to use force for self-defense against crime and injustice. If self-defense is scripturally justifiable so long as it is conducted without unnecessary violence, then so are the martial arts (the physical aspects only).[14]

Divergent opinions. Different perspectives. Certainly, this underscores the need for Christians to be aware of the issues involved. Christian instructors also need to assess carefully their teaching methodology with discernment.

For those who decide to begin a martial arts program, the following guidelines from an article in the Christian Research Journal may prove helpful:

Because the question of whether a Christian should participate in the martial arts involves gray areas, we believe it is worthwhile to consider some guidelines for discernment…. Christians must be honest with themselves, evaluating why they desire to participate in the martial arts. Negatively, some reasons might be to become “a tough guy,” to get revenge against someone, or perhaps to pridefully “show off.” Positively, some reasons might relate to staying in shape physically, practicing self-discipline, or perhaps training for self-defense against muggers or rapists. The Christian should not get involved in the martial arts with unworthy motives.

Christians must realize that practicing the martial arts will teach them maneuvers, blows, and kicks that could severely injure a person when actually used in a hostile confrontation. For this reason, they must examine their consciences regarding the potential use of force against another human being.

Not only is a commitment of time required to practice the martial arts, but Christians must also decide whether they will be able to endure the discipline needed to be an effective student. Such arts are generally very strenuous and demanding…. Certainly Christians should not allow a martial art to overshadow or detract from their religious commitments (Heb. 10:25). They should weigh whether they can afford to spend the time and money needed each week in practicing the martial arts. Could these resources be better spent in another endeavor?

The Christian should ascertain whether the instructor under consideration is himself (or herself) a Christian, a professing Christian with an Eastern worldview, a nonreligious non-Christian, or a religious non-Christian. If the trainer subscribes to an Eastern worldview, this will likely carry over into his teaching of the martial arts…. We believe that the choice of the right instructor is probably the single most important consideration for the Christian contemplating participation in the martial arts.

The Christian should keep an eye out for Eastern religious books, symbols, and the like, that might be in the training hall. This may help one discern what practices and beliefs are being espoused during training. Many schools start new students on a trial basis. Such a trial could help the Christian solidify his or her decision.

It may also be prudent to observe an advanced class. This will help the prospective student determine whether Eastern philosophy is taught only as the practitioner progresses.[15]

In conclusion, we believe some mature and informed Christians may participate in the martial arts to benefit if they have carefully evaluated their motives and the particular program being considered. Parents especially need to evaluate thoroughly any program for their children. On the other hand, if such precautions are not taken, the martial arts may become more of a snare, spiritually and otherwise, than expected.


  1. Erwin de Castro, B. J. Oropeza, Ron Rhodes, “Enter the Dragon?”, Part One, Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, p. 27.
  2. Interview, “The King of Combat: Robert Bussey’s Unique and Devastating Approach to Ninjitsu,” Ninja Masters, Winter, 1986, p. 67.
  3. Ibid., p. 91.
  4. Erwin de Castro, et al, “Enter the Dragon?”, Part Two, prepublication copy, Christian Research Journal, 1994.
  5. Edward Maisel, Tai Chi for Health (NY: Dell/Delta, 1972), p. 8.
  6. Brian Inglis, Ruth West, The Alternative Health Guide (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 146.
  7. Ibid., p. 146, emphasis added.
  8. Migi Autore, “The Contemplative Way of Tai Chi Chuan,” Aeropagus, Volume 3, Number 3, Easter, 1990.
  9. Jerry Mogul, “Tai Chi Chuan: A Taoist Art of Healing, Part One,” Somatics: The Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Spring, 1980, p. 37.
  10. Ibid., pp. 38-39.
  11. Ibid., pp. 39-40.
  12. Ibid., p. 42.
  13. Personal letter, September 21, 1990.
  14. de Castro, et al, “Enter the Dragon?”, Part 2.
  15. Ibid.

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